Just Fix It Wisconsin

SKOL: What drives Walker to wreck our roads? 1/30/2017

1/30/2016, La Crosse Tribune – As the Republican-dominated Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker struggle to agree on ways to fix the state’s crumbling roads an inconvenient fact is becoming ever more evident.

It is that the years of neglect in financing repairs and building projects has precipitated a crisis that will be expensive to fix just as the governor faces re-election in 2018. Walker no doubt would like to claim to have saved taxpayers money by his no-tax increases promise.

Never mind that the inconvenient fact is that failure to fix roads and improve transportation is costing each of us way more each year than what we would pay in say, a substantial increase in the gasoline tax — the most expeditious way to raise a lot of money to catch up on maintenance and finish important projects.

The nonprofit organization TRIP pointed out in a May 2016 report that driving on bad roads costs Wisconsin motorists about $6 billion annually in traffic crashes and increased vehicle operating costs such as car repairs and wasted fuel due to delays in traffic. In Madison, for example, the cost to the average driver was estimated at just over $2,000. TRIP, according to its website, is a national organization financed by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, distributors and suppliers; businesses involved in highway and transit engineering and construction; labor unions; and organizations concerned with efficient and safe surface transportation.

Walker’s own secretary of transportation said in December before he quit that Walker’s plan to not raise gas taxes or vehicle fees and to instead close a two-year $1 billion shortfall through borrowing and project delays would lead to more and more bad roads and could delay the completion of all the state’s major planned road projects by as much as decades.

Part of the problem is that much of the money we raise for the transportation fund goes to pay down the debt that has been piling up as Walker and the previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, used borrowing to close revenue gaps. The state spent more than $340 million on debt service in the most recent fiscal year. That’s just a waste. And borrowing costs are only going to increase in the years ahead.

By contrast, I estimate that my cost of a 20-cent increase in the gas tax would be about $75, based on my annual driving of about 10,000 miles and figuring a gas price including the higher tax of $2.70 a gallon. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau every 1 cent increase in the gas tax would raise about $33 million over the two-year budget cycle. So a 20-cent increase would raise about $660 million.

According to George Mitchell, a former state budget official who once served as Milwaukee County public works director, “the cost to the average motorist would be less than $10 a month to turn things around.” He added in an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in December that “given the larger reduction in state and local taxes already in place since 2011, Walker could sign a gas tax increase and still rightly claim a net tax reduction during his tenure.”

So compare those costs from a gas tax or some other new revenue source to the cost of a wheel alignment or blown tire or the variety of other costs that come from driving on bad roads. And we have to keep in mind that the condition of our transportation system, particularly our highways, is critical to the health of the state’s economy. TRIP points out that, annually, $264 billion in goods are shipped from sites in Wisconsin and another $236 billion in goods are shipped to sites in Wisconsin, mostly by truck.

A gas tax increase sounds like a deal.

But, alas, that’s not good enough for Walker, a politician who aspires to add to his conservative credentials for whatever reason, perhaps another run for president in 2020 if President Donald Trump falters.

Ironically, it’s not being conservative to buy on credit, which is what he proposes to push this tough decision down the road.

The public is fed up with the posturing on this issue. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recognized this when he took a ride in an ambulance to demonstrate the bad conditions of state roads.

That’s progress; he has proposed increasing revenue. But he’ll have to be willing to buck the governor and other Republicans who ignore the inconvenient facts of Wisconsin transportation problems.